BY CHARLES OSBORN
This year, Holy Cross High School football coach Tom Pugh sent three of his players to the UnitedHealthcare Empire Challenge, the annual all-star style football game held at Hofstra University.
The game was held on Tuesday, June 18 at James M. Shuart Stadium, with ticket sale proceeds going to cystic fibrosis research.
The match-up pitted the five boroughs against a team that drew its ranks from Nassau and Suffolk Counties. The city’s squad was stronger defensively thanks to the three Holy Cross players: cornerback Lekeith Celestain, defensive end
Malachi Hoskins and outside linebacker Juwan Wilson.
Along with bringing them to the big stage of the nationally televised Empire Challenge, the game will also help each of the graduating seniors to go to college.
Celestain, a tall cornerback who also played receiver throughout the past season, will head to Monmouth University in
New Jersey. The Kensington, Brooklyn resident said football has always been a big part of his life.
“I started to play organized football when I was 12 years old, but ever since I can remember, I’ve been playing,” Celestain said.
Monmouth University immediately offered Celestain a scholarship, he said, but he also received offers from James Madison University, Stony Brook University and Villanova University — all Division I schools. He said he is looking forward to college because it will provide him with more competition as well as more freedom.
Ozone Park resident Wilson, who played linebacker at Holy Cross but was safety in the Empire Challenge, was excited about both the atmosphere and the stiff competition at the event.
“It was a chance to play against the best around,” Wilson said.
Wilson, who is heading to Utica College’s Division III program, holds a unique distinction in the annals of Holy Cross football — he is the only player to ever be captain of the squad two years in a row.
Pugh cited his work ethic and intelligence as factors that have led to his success on the field.
“I’ve been playing football since I was four years old with my brother,” Wilson said.
Wilson, who plays the traditionally cerebral position of outside linebacker, cited the family atmosphere at Utica as the reason for his choice.
“It reminds me of Holy Cross,” Wilson said. “Everyone is close-knit.”
He is most looking forward to the jump from high school to college because it will provide a learning experience.
“It’s a chance to learn even more about the game,” he said. “I’m also looking forward to the jump in physicality. I really like being physical out there on the field.”
Hoskins knows all about physicality, too.
He plays defensive end, a grueling physical position that requires size, speed and toughness. Hoskins will bring his fair share of each to a college program later this year, but he has not settled on a choice yet. He is currently leaning toward Division I Central Connecticut University, which he described as a “good fit.”
“I look at the jump to college as a chance to get better and to learn the game,” Hoskins said.
The Queens Village resident also received an offer from Wagner College, but he saw the Empire Challenge as the opportunity to gain exposure.
According to Pugh, Celestain, Wilson and Hoskins will not represent Holy Cross in the college ranks alone.
“We currently have 42 graduates playing some form of college football. This year, we have 10 more to add,” Pugh said.